This is a question I respond to regularly, due to my personal and professional connection to the topic. Just last week I received an email and follow up frantic text from a mentor asking for words. Words to give a group of young mothers, to help them support a mother whose baby had died unexpectedly. After some of my own processing I was able to write a few sentences, quoting Patton Oswalt’s late wife, ‘It's Chaos, Be Kind’ and allowing the grieving mother to be right where she was.
The next day, I came across this article, “When a Grieving Mother talks, Listen”. In the article Jen Gunter writes, “I can also leak my sorrow out into the ether ...If I do this, I know there will be a terrible pause because nothing sucks the life out of the room faster than telling someone you had a dead baby. The other person will quickly say, “I’m so sorry.” What do I say in reply? “That’s O.K.”?
It is most definitely not O.K.
As soon as the words that proclaim I had a third son leave my lips, I regret them. I feel responsible for the uncomfortable atmosphere generated by the sorrow I was not supposed to share. I do not want to be excluded anymore than I already feel, so I hastily gather the remnants of my sadness back inside where they can cut only me. "
The question remains: how to talk or listen to a grieving mother. What do you say or do? What if you say the wrong thing and offend them? What if you talk too much and they don’t want to talk? What if you make them cry? What if I don’t talk enough and that makes them cry? What do I do if they cry? What do I do if they just want to be distracted and avoid talking about it?
So let’s talk…
To quote Buddha: “Words have both the power to heal and destroy”.
We need to be aware of the impact our words can make and choose words carefully. We want to avoid words that will work to diminish pain or unintentionally tell the mother that she should be ‘over it’ by now. Discussing what NOT to say, will come at another time – but a good rule of thumb is anything about lemons, not being given more than you can handle, comparing to the loss of a grandparent, or things happening for a reason SHOULD NOT BE SAID.
What to say:
1. “I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I am here if or when you need me.”
It is good if you know what you are capable of handling. If you are not someone that can sit in heavy conversation, but are wonderful at distraction I think this is important to acknowledge. Offer to come over for the distraction – bring the snack tray, wine, games, etc. Can you randomly stop by for dinner (and then leave)? Can you occupy other children or clean the house? Can you plan a night out? Or can you be that person that can sit with them and let them cry? Knowing your abilities is so important to not put your pain of discomfort on her.
2. “I am so sorry for your loss. How are you? How are you really? What are you feeling?”
Knowing that there is someone out there that actually wants to know how you really are is so important. Grieving mothers often say they feel like they are wearing a mask daily. Trying to act the part of a functional member of their family, work, society. But really, they just want to talk about the child they lost. They are craving a safe place to unload, a safe place to just be real. Maya Angelo said it best: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
3. “This really sucks and I hate that you are going through this.”
That is all there really is to say. The emotions of grief are similar to wading in the ocean. Sometimes you are just floating on top but not exerting much force – other times you are using every part of your body to get back to the top. Eventually you get better at managing waves and learning how to use less energy – but you don’t tame the ocean.
4. Say their name.
Don’t stop saying the child’s name for fear that you might ‘make them cry’. Their child is always on their mind and knowing that other people are thinking about them means the world to mothers. Knowing that the rest of the world has not forgotten them.
And as for the ‘making them cry’ – I prefer the reframe of giving them a safe space and ‘letting them cry’.
5. Say nothing.
Sometimes just being a welcoming space is all someone needs. Knowing they are not alone, but also that they don’t need to talk.
6. SHOW UP
I can’t express the importance of showing up. And I don’t mean this as actually being at their home in a physical sense. I mean making the time for that phone call or sending letters or one-line text message saying, “I am thinking of you and (insert child’s name).” This is a moment in their life that they WILL NOT forget, and some relationships will never be the same. The excuse of ‘I didn’t know what to say’ or ‘it was just too much for me’ is complete bullshit. You take the time to realize they are drowning and your ‘discomfort’ for five minutes is nothing compared to their new life.
7. “I don’t know what to say”
Because there is nothing that anyone can say to take the pain away. Being in the space to say this, is the most important part. It is ok not to have words. I regularly use the line, “I don’t know what to say, but this is the point that I wish I had a magic wand to take away your suffering for 5 minutes.”
Our moms (and dads) are suffering.
Their life is your horror story.
Be kind and show up.